What smoking ban? Hoopla over hookah

QUIT VICTORIA has accused Middle Eastern cafes of exploiting a loophole in anti-tobacco legislation by allowing patrons to smoke tobacco water pipes inside premises, while cigarette smokers are forced outside.

Inner-city bars and nightclubs are also capitalising on the growing popularity of water pipes or hookahs among students, with more than 80 licensed venues offering “hubbly bubbly” to a younger clientele.

The Department of Human Services has exempted hookah smoking from strict tobacco bans introduced almost two years ago, despite World Health Organisation warnings that a typical 45-minute water-pipe session was equivalent to about 100 cigarettes.

“Unlike cigarettes and cigars, hookah products do not always contain tobacco and, in most instances, are made up of a mix of tobacco, fruit and molasses,” a DHS spokesman said.

But Quit Victoria executive director Fiona Sharkie said all tobacco products should be treated the same way. She called for a ban on water pipes in all Victorian bars, cafes and restaurants.

“This is a product that is called tobacco, it contains tobacco and is smoked, so it seems logical that it is covered by the same laws as cigarettes, especially considering the substantial health risks.

“Everybody has the right to work or socialise in environments without being exposed to damaging second-hand tobacco smoke, whether that comes from a cigarette or a water pipe,” Ms Sharkie said.

Along Coburg’s Sydney Road, more than six cafes known as shisha lounges are permanently shrouded in a thick veil of apple-scented smoke. The cafes cater for a predominantly Middle Eastern and African crowd, who say hookah smoking is an important part of their culture.

“We are new to Australia and we need to socialise. Australians like to have a drink at the pub, but we don’t drink alcohol, so we catch up for a glass of tea and smoke shisha,” said Abdul Abdul, 42, of Tarneit.

He conceded the practice was addictive. During a typical session, Mr Abdul said he smoked two “heads”, which lasted about two hours and cost $15 each.

“It’s probably not as bad as smoking cigarettes, but it’s still smoking and obviously not good for you,” Mr Abdul said.

Industrial designer Sean Moran, 35, smokes at another Sydney Road cafe up to five times a week and purchased a hookah for the Queen’s Birthday long weekend.

Mr Moran said he was aware that smoking water-pipe tobacco — also known as shisha, argileh and narghile — was both harmful and addictive.

“Some people say the water pipe reduces tar and nicotine … but I suppose I know it’s addictive, at least psychologically,” Mr Moran said.

Victorian Arabic Social Services manager Leila Alloush, said there had been a threefold increase in hookah use over the past year, with many other ethnic groups taking up the habit.

“This is definitely not confined to the Arabic community, but it worries me that so many Arabic kids think this is part of their culture. I wish they understood the risks and what they are doing to their bodies,” Ms Alloush said.

VicHealth research found smoke inhaled through a hookah could be more harmful than cigarettes. “Water-pipe smokers may be exposed to similar or higher levels of dangerous substances, such as carbon monoxide, nicotine, tar, cancer-causing chemicals and heavy metal,” according to the report.

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